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July 15, 2015 - Kim Moore [see other posts]

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Fictional Science - It's Everywhere

The summer 2015 edition of Trust by the Pew Charitable Trusts contains a fascinating report on a survey determining the difference of opinion between scientists and the general public. A Deep Divide (by Guy Gugliotta) discusses a wide divergence of positions between U.S. adults and members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the world's largest scientific society). Here are a few of the differences in opinion from that survey:

Issue
U.S. Adults
Scientists
Safe to eat genetically modified foods
37%
88%
Humans have evolved over time
65%
98%
Require childhood vaccines for diseases 1
68%
86%
Climate change is mostly due to human activity
50%
87%
Favor building more nuclear power plants
45%
65%

"[S]cientists were not particularly complimentary about journalistic coverage of their work...suggesting that journalists have a tendency to give equal weight to opposing views on a particular subject, creating controversy even when the vast majority of scientists are in agreement."

Our own organizational experience with the fluoridation issue could fit right into this analysis. A stray Ph.D. or two in some field opposing community water fluoridation will be treated with great deference by the media, political leaders and true believers of anti-fluoridation ideas. The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence, endorsements of prestigious associations and societies, and support from local health authorities are ignored as controversy is created by a few voices who support belief systems not based in science at all. Where information is generated and received plays a big role. As others have noted, we tend to get information from sources which confirm our pre-existing beliefs. Listen to Fox News or MSNBC and you find different "facts" even in the day-to-day happenings of the world.

A key issue in today's polarized society is the apparent failure of some political leaders to challenge popular beliefs when they are clearly non-scientific. In fact, there seems to be a tendency to feed the frenzy instead of leading toward solid thinking. The situation requires some parts of our society to do an even better job with dispensing information which is as trustworthy (scientific, valid, real) as possible. Philanthropy needs to be at the forefront of this endeavor, which requires philanthropic leaders to remain open to new evidence, do thorough source criticism of materials they use, and speak the truth as they discover it (versus see it). Actually, this approach would not be a bad one for all of us to use before we make up our minds about an issue.

Footnote 1:
Older respondents favored mandatory vaccines in higher numbers than younger people (78% to 63%).